In conversation with Billy

June 24th, 2011 | By | No Comments »

Smile. Photo by HookedBlog.

For the last 6 months, alongside partner in crime Malarky, Billy has been producing some of my favourite street art in London (and Madrid). I was lucky enough to catch up with her literally two hours before the duo’s show, Summer Breeze, opened at High Roller Society. Despite her distinct lack of sleep, Billy remained her bubbly self and her passion for giraffes, bright colours, and warm weather quickly became apparent…

“I just like painting stuff and making things look colourful. It livens up the street. And being able to paint your artwork in a large scale is great; I get a real buzz out of that. But I want to ensure that I don’t come across like a badass writer because I’m not, I just like adding colour to dull streets and making my work available to all.”

Malarky x Billy - Wiped Out. Photo by Billy.

But when questioned about street art, Billy was reluctant to be labelled a ‘street artist’ due to her background, and believes the label can often be misinterpreted.

“I have an illustration background, I studied graphic design. But I have been doing a lot of artwork on the streets recently, so I suppose if that defines a street artist then I am, but I don’t come from a graffiti based background and didn’t start with traditional illegal tagging. All the work I’ve produced on the street is legal. I just like making my artwork visible to lots of people, in a space that is so accessible. But then again a lot of people prefer to do it illegally for that adrenaline rush.

Plus I think the term street art can be massively misinterpreted by some people. People say the words ‘street art’ and automatically presume you come from a graffiti background but that’s not true. You don’t need to come from that kind of background to be a street artist. Anyone can be one and do something smart on the street.

In fact, me and Malarky have done a couple of pieces for the show, doing a bit of a piss take, mainly out of ourselves but also the scene. One piece is called “Street Life” which came about when we were just listening to some hip hop and taking the piss, saying “Oh we’re so street!””

Make Me Wanna Holler. Photo by HookedBlog.

Billy, certainly raised an interesting subject with regard to the necessary qualities you need possess to be considered a ‘street artist’. Having recently read the book Abstract Graffiti by Cedar Lewisohn, I took a quote that stood out to me – “Some artists now seem to be more interested in such things as craftsmanship and drawing… It’s almost a shift from graphic art to fine art on the street” – and asked if she agreed.

“Oh yeah, I definitely think some artists are. But due to background, for me it’s just about drawing, always. That’s how I’ve developed my style; I’ve just always been really into drawing. And then just being able to take and make it big is the way I’ve come across street art.

I think there are definitely shifts and trends, and things coming out of fashion, or maybe just people jumping on bandwagons. Or they are more interested in just developing their style and technique.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with being influenced by other people and what they’re doing, when you see someone doing something really cool. Like in Madrid, 3TT Man was plastering concrete onto walls and engraving into them. And that’s just a sick idea. Obviously if you went and did that you would be biting his idea but there is nothing wrong with drawing on his, and other people’s ideas, and doing things in your own way.”

Billy, Malarky and Mr Penfold hit Madrid. Photo by Billy.

Much of Billy’s street work has been completed in collaboration with other artists; Mr Penfold, Sweet Toof, Mighty Mo, 45RPM, Richt, and of course Malarky. Having asked a bit about their working relationships and how they prepare for a colab piece, I found out it often comes down to alcohol intake…

“It’s all about our mutual love of just going out and painting, our work ties in really well together and people just get good vibes off it. Working with people like Sweet Toof and Monkey has been wicked, you learn new things, it’s got me more exposure and this show has actually come off the back of contacts through them. It’s just nice to vary it up and when you work with them it kind of opens your eyes to how other people paint.

The work we produce, kind of depends on what we’re doing and how many beers we have drunk. Sometimes we sit down and do a little sketch. I think we always have some kind of idea but it does sometimes get a bit silly and it ends up changing into someone else. When we collaborate with other people we always know what each other draws, like Mr Penfold and his characters with their weird noses, it kinds of just works. I’ve never been like “This is your part of the wall, this is mine”, its quite fluid, we mix it up a bit. And I’m learning about working with people all the time.”

Billy, Malarky and Monkey in Brixton. Photo by Billy.

Billy in Berlin. Photo by Billy.

As the conversation progresses, Billy explains that she has been lucky with regard to the increasing levels of buffing in London prior to the Olympics. In her words it’s been “so good, so far” and she hasn’t had any of her pieces removed. Although she admits it’s certainly going to happen one day and so taking photos and documenting her work is important.

Much of this street work has been in the form of shutters and vans, I asked about her choice of surface, which she prefers, and asked who chooses the brilliantly bright colours they use.

“I think the response we have been getting from doing shutters has been quite funny because it’s so easy; all you need to do is go into the shop and say “Can we paint your shutters?” And there are so many to paint, tonnes and tonnes in London. In certain areas every single shop has shutters. They are just easy to paint and walls and roof tops are harder to come by, it’s hard to get permission.

Malarky got into vans in Barcelona because you can’t paint shutters there anymore legally. Even if the shop lets you, there has been a law passed where the council no longer allows it. And there are tonnes of trucks there, they all park up on the side of the road and they are usually covered in tags already. It’s much harder to find a truck here that you can paint. I’ve only painted a couple but the wicked thing is about painting them is that they move around the city during the day.

The thing about shutters is they are wicked too but people don’t really see them unless its night time or Sunday. And a lot of the ones we do paint open to silly o’clock too, off licences and stuff, and so people don’t really see them. We have got lots of exposure but if they were down all the time more people could see our work.

In terms of the surface, painting a truck is just so much better. It’s so much flatter. When I first started painting a really appreciated the shutters because I could be really loose with my style. I’m really getting into doing shapes and stuff but it’s hard to get a really crisp line on a corrugated shutter. When you use a shutter it’s a bit more about doing pieces with a bit more impact with bold outlines.

Originally the colours I use come from when Malarky and I went to paint together. We used to go buy paint together and use the same colours. And then we based it on the Posca Paint Pallet. All 94 colours are quite bright and nice to work with. From there it kind of just developed where we would just get the same sort of colours each time. But I quite like mixing it up a bit – the work I’ve got in the show is toned down a bit, still bright, but not quite as in your face.”

Reach for the Sky. Photo by HookedBlog.

Having popped into the gallery prior to the conversation and seen how the duo’s street work had progressed when moved inside, I was eager to ask Billy about what influences her style. And before she had to return to finish hanging her work I managed to quickly ask a bit about the show and to why it’s called Summer Breeze.

“A lot of my work is influenced from South Africa, where I used to live when I was younger, and consequently I’m really inspired by tribal and caveman paintings. I’ve got some really good African books about old artists and sand paintings that I enjoy.

But then also it’s influenced by other places I’ve visited, other art, and just all sorts of things really – song lyrics, animals, anything. To be honest this necklace I’m wearing is a massive influence. It’s got all sorts of animals in it, especially giraffes. And then there are the patterns and the animal prints, they inspire me too, and drop shadows, they are cool.

The show has sort of evolved from the time I met Malarky. When we first met it was really cold and snowing, but as we have painted more and more shutters the weather has been getting better. We even went to Madrid where it was really sunny, and here it’s just been getting progressively nicer since we met.

When you paint outside and its freezing cold that’s probably the worst situation to paint in, it’s so horrible. Your hands freeze around the can. It’s kind of just a progression into the summer. And then it also relates to the song ‘Summer Breeze’ by Seals and Crofts which I think was later covered by the Isley Brothers. It’s really just about those things and our artistic styles.”

Summer Breeze. Photo by HookedBlog.

Summer Breeze continues at High Roller Society until 3rd July, if you like Billy and Malarky’s street work then I urge you to check it out!

And if you like cakes get following Billy’s sister, Rosie. Forget Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, and Gordon Ramsey, this girl can cook! Her little cherryade, coke and lemonade cakes went down a treat with everyone who attended the opening night. I was a sucker for the cherry ones… amazing.

Photos by Billy and HookedBlog


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